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Finding Carlos Sanchez

Hood Quarterly, summer 2013
Jessica Womack ’14

During the winter term of 2012, I worked at the Hood Museum of Art as the Class of 1959 Intern. My main project was to assist with the planning for The Expanding Grid, an exhibition that explored the legacy of cubism and grid-based abstraction in contemporary art. I worked directly with Director Michael Taylor to choose pieces and write labels for the show, which was on view from April to August 2012.

During my time at the museum, the director repeatedly expressed his interest in expanding the Hood’s collection by acquiring works of significance to the history of Dartmouth. One of the artists we discussed was Carlos Sanchez ’23, Dartmouth’s first artist-in-residence, whose work was not yet represented in the museum’s permanent collection despite the crucial role that he played in shaping the arts on campus. Michael handed me Sanchez’s file from the Alumni Relations Office and told me to “put on a deerstalker” (like Sherlock Holmes) and go find Carlos Sanchez. Here is what I uncovered.

In the reserve reading room of Baker Library, the prominent Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco painted one of his most famous murals, The Epic of American Civilization (1932–34). This mural, which consists of twenty-four panels that cover 3,200 square feet of wall space, depicts the history of the Americas from the time of pre-conquest civilizations, such as the Aztecs, to modern industrialization. Assisting Orozco in this massive endeavor was none other than the Guatemalan-born Carlos Sanchez, a man with a longstanding and deeply personal connection to Dartmouth.

One of ten children, Sanchez was born in 1898 in Guatemala City to a wealthy Guatemalan plantation owner and his English wife. Sanchez enrolled at Dartmouth after World War I to study engineering on a Pan American Institute Scholarship. At Dartmouth, both peers and professors compelled Sanchez, a devout Catholic, to question his religious beliefs for the first time, and he soon lost both his piety and his direction. In a July 1991 interview with the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate, Sanchez described his instructors’ influence, saying, “Those brilliant minds made a lot of boys lose their faith. They made me lose mine. Everything became so uncertain.”

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1923, Sanchez moved to Germany to study medicine. Instead of completing his training, however, he took advantage of the many art-related opportunities of the Weimar Era, when intellectual and cultural activity flourished prior to the rise of the Nazi Party.

In 1928, Sanchez received a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. After a brief stint as a junior draftsman on the Empire State Building, he moved to Mexico to work with Diego Rivera on two murals, one in the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca and the other at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Dartmouth recognized Sanchez as a promising artist with great technical proficiency and in 1931 invited him back to campus as part of the new “Fellow in Art” program that was supported by President Ernest Hopkins. During his time as the first artist-in-residence, Sanchez helped found the Arts Department at Dartmouth, and at the end of his yearlong residency, he stayed at the College to assist Orozco in painting the famous mural in Baker Library. His fluency in English and Spanish and his knowledge of Dartmouth and its history were invaluable to Orozco as he worked on his ambitious project.

At this point, the alumni file information gave out, but I had noticed, in a section of the alumni file titled “Relatives,” a hastily written addition on one of the pages: “Ricardo Falla Sanchez, nephew.” After a Google search, I learned that Ricardo Sanchez is an anthropologist researching the Quiché Maya culture in Guatemala, among other indigenous populations in Central America and a Jesuit priest leading La Natividad in Santa Marta Chiquimula, Guatemala, a sister parish of Saint Francis Xavier College Church at Saint Louis University.

In an effort to contact him, I reached out to the Director of Social Ministry at the St. Francis Xavier College Church. After two days, I received a reply from Father Sanchez himself. He enthusiastically inquired as to what specifically the museum was looking for, as his uncle had been a prolific painter. He also said that all of his uncle’s paintings were then owned by family members and friends in Guatemala or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After I expressed the Hood’s desire to acquire a work by Sanchez, I received a number of documents from Father Sanchez’s sister, Cristina de Echeverría, including photos from the artist’s oeuvre spanning more than sixty years.

The images of Sanchez’s work left Michael and me speechless. In addition to later religious paintings and portraits of family members, there were two paintings that he made during his time at Dartmouth: Self-Portrait (1923) and Young Man with Bird (1932). Self-Portrait was created during Sanchez’s undergraduate years at Dartmouth, when he first struggled with the challenges and questions academia had imposed upon his religious beliefs. “I don’t think I have ever suffered as much as during that struggle for my faith,” Sanchez later stated. “That goes deep, you know. I hated God.” The artist’s angst-ridden appearance is exacerbated by the use of erratic brushstrokes and jarring, dissonant colors. Sanchez has rendered himself disquieted and powerless, menaced by his directionless existence without faith.

The mood of Sanchez’s later work, Young Man with Bird, starkly contrasts with that of Self-Portrait. His faith became reinvigorated in the 1930s, when Sanchez experienced the “first real call to become a priest.” Young Man with Bird depicts this personal transformation and shift in spirituality. Here, a young red-haired man embraces a glowing orange bird against a star-filled night sky. His closed eyes suggest a religious experience, conveying a sense of powerful emotion and spiritual transcendence. The radiant colors and dramatic, flickering light gives the painting an ethereal quality that suggests a maturation of Sanchez’s spiritual vision and technical ability. The importance of this painting for the artist is underscored by the fact that he hand-carved a decorative wooden frame for the work.

After leaving Dartmouth, Sanchez taught art briefly at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, before entering the priesthood. The church did not initially support his vocation, due to his relatively advanced age and poor grasp of Latin. Despite these obstacles, he was admitted to a seminary in San Antonio and ordained in 1950 in New Orleans. He served as a parish priest in Guatemala City between 1951 and 1965 and later retired in Baton Rouge as a monsignor. Sanchez continued to paint for the rest of his life.

Even after my internship at the Hood ended, my conversations with the Sanchez family continued. In December 2012, Juan José Falla, another nephew of the artist, stated that the family had agreed to donate Self-Portrait and Young Man with Bird to the Hood under the provision that they would never be sold. The director agreed and these works were accepted into the permanent collection as year-end gifts. I am delighted to have helped the Hood to “find” Carlos Sanchez and acquire these two amazing and historically significant paintings, and I am grateful to the artist’s family, especially Rev. Ricardo Falla, Juan José Falla, and Cristina de Echeverría, for making this donation to the Hood Museum of Art and Dartmouth College, where these works will be studied and enjoyed for generations to come.

The gift of these paintings has inspired the Hood, in partnership with the Studio Art Department, to organize a major exhibition exploring the history and legacy of the Artistin-Residence Program at Dartmouth that will open in January 2014. Sanchez’s work can now take its rightful place alongside artists like Orozco, Paul Sample, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Alison Saar, and Magdelene Odundo, all of whom have participated in this unique residency program that has brought so many groundbreaking artists to our campus.

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